When it was conceived to relieve London’s housing congestion, Milton Keynes was designed as a ‘forest city’. Six decades on, Forestry Journal joined the trust responsible for managing its urban woodland for the day to find out all about its mission. 

IT is a bright, chilly day in central Milton Keynes. Sun leaks through a just-thinned compartment of oak and maple, casting deep woodland shadows onto grassy stepped spectator seating, covered in a frost so thick it looks like snow, on the south side of a cricket pitch.

Up on Woodland Ridge, one of the higher points in 34-hectare Grade II-listed Campbell Park, felled oak, awaiting removal from a plantation, lies among new plantings of wild service. This native broadleaf has been used because it fulfils a range of criteria in a changing climate. It grows well in Milton Keynes’ clay soils and survives polluted air and is a reliable alternative to the ash trees that have succumbed to dieback being removed for safety reasons along grid roads.

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With the Parks Trust’s operations manager for landscape and forestry, Frank Gill, is landscape and forestry officer Jo Jervis. Jo explains that thinning works are carried out by both the in-house team and ‘term’ (six-year) contractors, some having worked with the trust since 1992. “Campbell Park is part of the only linear park system in England to hold a Green Flag award. It is open 24 hours a day and working in public view is great for public engagement and explaining why we are doing things.”

Forestry Journal: Parkland vista, including a flock of sheep grazing where it is frost-free.Parkland vista, including a flock of sheep grazing where it is frost-free. (Image: FJ)

Milton Keynes was conceived to relieve London’s housing congestion. It was designed as a ‘forest city’ offering 25 per cent green space no matter how large it grew. From 1967 to 1992, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation oversaw planning and development.

In 1992, the MKDC handed over planning function control to the local council, setting up the Parks Trust (an independent charity) to manage much of MK’s green space and water bodies in perpetuity (999-year lease).

Thirty years on and the trust manages approximately 2,521 ha of green and blue infrastructure. These landscapes include parks, nature reserves, river valleys or ‘linear parks’ that follow waterways and flood plains unsuited to development, and bodies of water. It manages 434 ha of canopy cover, including young woodland plantations in parks, 90 ha of ancient woodlands, and an infrastructure of “field maples, English oak, Corsican pine, horse chestnut, wild service, willow, poplar (1960s plantings for quick green cover)” and more along 80 km of grid roads.

Grid roads are ‘H’ (horizontal) or ‘V’ (vertical) dual carriageways or wide single carriageways (that can expand to dual) beyond the city centre. “We don’t manage the roundabouts and central reservations, but we do manage boundaries bordering approximately 10,000 neighbours,” clarifies Frank.

Jo is one of seven landscape officers employed by the Trust. She works in the North Parks team, managing two grid roads and a number of parks. Originally from Stoke-on-Trent, she gained a forestry degree from Bangor University and joined the trust’s direct works trainee programme in 2015. Two years later, she progressed to technician, joining the trust’s ranger team a year later.

Cattle grids and metal stock fencing separate Woodland Ridge from parkland, which flows around the Belvedere, a man-made hill topped with a ‘Light Pyramid’ (one of the park’s 12 public works of art, and one of 38 in the trust’s entire collection), before sweeping back around towards the cricket pitch. Pastoral vistas take in maple standards (planted as mature trees when MK was first laid out) protected by metal fencing from the sheep flock grazing areas free of frost. The glinting glass of a city-centre hotel is the only indication of this central location.

Forestry Journal:  (l–r) Trainee Charles Gander, trainee Scott Mulcahy, new technician Oli Needham and site supervisor Paul Baker. (l–r) Trainee Charles Gander, trainee Scott Mulcahy, new technician Oli Needham and site supervisor Paul Baker. (Image: FJ)

‘Gentlemen’s fencing’ in midnight blue protects formal plantings on a small incline either side of a Redway underpass. At the top of the incline, Corsican pine and wellingtonia screen a grid road and provide a green foil for leafless broadleaf crowns. Below, dense shrubbery, lonicera and cotoneaster, cloud-pruned to waist height, deters any would-be litter stashers while offering good sight lines around the underpass entrance. The Redway is a network of paths enabling residents to walk or cycle around the city without having to cross a main road.

Along the north side of the cricket pitch, a rill flows beneath weeping willows into a pond surrounded by sprouting red cornus stems and covered with iced-in berglets. Jo says: “Any coloured woods, cornus (red) or willow (yellow), we leave until March to maintain colour throughout winter. Cornus is coppiced on rotation and the arisings from these (and other) operations are chipped for use on the rides.”

Flowing on behind two cricket bat willows, monoliths recently created by a team of four including two direct works trainees (with MEWP operator tickets), the rill passes the cricket pavilion (also the trust’s head office) to join the Grand Union Canal on Campbell Park’s eastern boundary. Narrow boats, permanently moored below a row of Lombardy poplars, have been iced in for a week.

Beyond the Cricket Pavilion, the in-house team has transformed scrubland into a ‘Remembrance Walk’, installing benches for dedication to loved ones and planting two avenues of young small-leafed lime (Tilia cordata ‘winter orange’). All is surrounded by rough grass, a wildflower meadow of riotous colour in summer.

The young limes have suffered environmental vandalism (less on grid roads and in woodlands). Saplings have been snapped or ring-barked by dogs whose owners encourage them to clamp their jaws around the immature stems, shredding the cambium layer. If operations or ranger staff witness anti-social activity, or it is recorded on camera, vandals can be prosecuted.

Forestry Journal: Site supervisor Paul Baker felling a squirrel-damaged field maple to make way for supplementary plantings.Site supervisor Paul Baker felling a squirrel-damaged field maple to make way for supplementary plantings. (Image: FJ)

Heading over to Middleton Wood Meadow and some forestry works, Frank drives one of the seven Volkswagen ID3 electric cars available to staff. Of electric tools he says: “We have tried all sorts of electric equipment. Pole saws and hedge cutters work well. Electric chainsaw engines cut out in extreme heat and the batteries do not last.”

All team members Forestry Journal met today joined the trust via the direct works trainee programme. Those successfully completing the programme were offered a full-time contract. That the trust can afford a trainee programme is because it is self-financing, set up in 1992 with £20 million endowment and a portfolio of commercial property. The trust has grown these assets and developed other income streams, meaning it does not have to fight for government funding.

The 2021 census recorded MK’s population at 285,000 and this is predicted to grow to 410,000 by 2050. The aim of the local authority is to maintain (at least) 40 per cent of the city as green and blue infrastructure, funded (as was the trust initially) by endowments. By actively growing the direct works team now, the trust should be well placed to manage additional green space land transferred over by developers.

Forestry Journal: Frosted log piles in the woodstore, with chip mounds in the background that will go for mulch and laying on footpathsFrosted log piles in the woodstore, with chip mounds in the background that will go for mulch and laying on footpaths (Image: FJ)

“It is not mandated that developers transfer land to the Parks Trust with an endowment,” says Frank. “But if we have early engagement with them, it is more likely that new green infrastructure will be handed over to us with an affordable endowment for developers.”

Most recently, approximately seven ha of new green space in the city’s ‘Oakgrove’ development was transferred into the trust’s care with an endowment from Crest Nicholson. The trust is currently working with the developers of ‘MK East’, a major growth area, for which 115 ha of green space is planned and that the trust hopes to take on.

Middleton Wood Meadow is part of a larger 9-ha site containing medieval fishponds (Scheduled Ancient Monument), trees, plantations, grass paddocks and scrub. Four ha (once used as an old council tree nursery) was handed over by the HCA (Homes Communities Agency) to the trust in 2012.

Today’s works are led by Eastern Parks landscape officer Barry Goodman, a climbing arborist of 30 years experience, who joined the direct works hard works team two years ago. Site supervisor Paul Baker works with a team of three; new technician Oli Needham and trainees Scott Mulcahy and Charles Gander, reducing (and chipping) a clump of squirrel-damaged field maple by 40 per cent to make way for supplementary plantings. 

When operations manager Frank joined direct works in 2006, he was one of five. He now manages a team of over 30. He says: “In an industry currently struggling to find recruits, it shows the success of what we, a charity with an annual turnover of £13m, a department with an overall budget of £3.5m, £400,000 for forestry and tree work, are doing. We have a good name. We offer training and take time to nurture trainees. We offer a variety of work in MK (no commuting necessary) and a clear progression through the charity.”

Barry Goodman shows a corner of meadow landscaped with 1,200 tree guards, mostly trials of biodegradable and compostable cardboard, installed by schoolchildren last year.

Barely visible, the oaks, field maple, blackthorn, hawthorn and dogwood whips were donated by MK Community Trees and the Woodland Trust. Barry acknowledges that the trees are small, but he has been surprised by the rate of establishment. “We planted them close together, surrounding them with woodchip mulch to reduce herbicide use. It’s a wet site, a clay cap over a landfill (former quarry). Last year’s drought was not a problem.” An icy seasonal pond built with funds from the Newt Conservation Partnership will be landscaped with plants and deadwood for biodiversity.

Willen Lake, a balancing lake used to control floodwaters from the River Ouzel (a tributary of the River Great Ouse) during times of high rainfall, is the trust’s most popular attraction. Around a million visitors a year take advantage of the commercially run water sports (and other activities) on offer in the park. All profits are used to fund the development, maintenance and conservation of this and 40 other parks throughout Milton Keynes. It is the same for the profits from annual sales of firewood; 80 tonnes of seasoned firewood (bulk bags and small bags), 380 tonnes of unseasoned firewood (5-tonne loads), 300 tonnes of chipwood (biomass).

All usable timber felled across MK is brought back to the woodstore by tractor driver Alfie Williams in the trust’s Valtra 155 tractor (with Sky-view forestry cab) and Farma T12 forwarding trailer unit. Stems are piled either side of a semicircular track, possibly a repurposed lay by, according to their end use. Although stocks are low following a pre-Christmas sales spurt, the remaining stacks contain mixed hardwood (including ash) drying for firewood, redwood butts for a carver, small-diameter roundwood (softwood, poplar and willow) for biomass, and hefty broadleaf butts used as temporary bollards for defences when needed. Frank says: “We have seen a lot of interest in the seasoned wood and five-tonne loads (split at home) because of the energy crisis.”

One crop, cricket bat willow, has been managed for timber ever since the city was first built. Willow sets (saplings, clone cuttings) are planted a metre into the ground. When the stems reach 17-inch diameter (15–20 years), packages of 80–90 trees are put out to tender, and will be harvested in house. The packages are then sold, via contractors contractually obliged to resupply sets for replanting, to bat makers (currently Gunn and Moore), who supply budding (and professional) cricketers as far afield as Pakistan and Australia. The brash is chipped and used as mulch or laid on footpaths.

Forestry Journal: ChippingChipping (Image: FJ)

The trust’s charitable remit requires it to maintain the green spaces for the benefit of the community. Educational events and open days are run from an education centre in Howe Park Wood by an internal team as well as some of the (more than) 200 volunteers that support the trust in various areas of its work. This ‘honey pot’ also accommodates a café with a safe, grassy outdoor play space ringed with picnic benches, bug hotels and a sculpture of four frogs playing instruments.

Mentioned in the Domesday Book (1085), Howe Park Wood is now a 15.5-ha ASNW, with an SSSI designation that supports the black hairstreak butterfly. Managed under a 10-year plan, 15 compartments comprising (mostly) oak and ash, with an understorey of hazel and blackthorn, are divided by wide frosted rides.

A robin alights on a branch at the edge of a three-acre coupe recently cleared of scrubby willow. “We reduced the canopy by 20 per cent, removing twenty ADB-infected ash, leaving aspen and hornbeam on the far side. The sticks left by the in-house team mark where our volunteers will replant oaks from the acorn project next week.” 

In 2020, residents collected acorns to grow on at home. When they reach 200 mm high, they are brought back for planting out.

Forestry Journal: Alfie Williams, tractor driver and landscape technician, with five tonnes of recently thinned ash from Linford Wood, uses the remote control to operate the Farma T12 forwarding trailer crane arm.Alfie Williams, tractor driver and landscape technician, with five tonnes of recently thinned ash from Linford Wood, uses the remote control to operate the Farma T12 forwarding trailer crane arm. (Image: FJ)

Painted graffiti hearts adorn a tree near the oldest crab apple in this wood. At 100 years plus, its lumbersome stem shows signs of past branch failures. The trust manages a number of community orchards around the city, target pruning so locals can safely forage for apples, pears and plums. “As soon as we talk about them, people get excited and come to collect fruit, educating the kids that fruit does not come in a plastic bag.”

This winter, the landscape and forestry team’s arb and forestry works included coppicing, thinning, pruning and planting across 25 ha of parks and grid roads. “60 per cent of works were done in-house, with the remainder carried out by term and day-work contractors.” 

During nesting season, the team will survey for bird nests, grind stumps, coppice and mulch the trees and shrub beds.

Opening in 2016, Floodplain Forest Nature Reserve was grazing land that was quarried for gravel and sand by Hanson from 2007 to 2014. In 2015, the site was reinstated – filled in with reject stone and topsoil – to a pre-agreed wetland design complete with inlets and outlets to the River Great Ouse. 

Forestry Journal: Frank Gill and Alfie Williams stand between fast-growing eight-year-old cricket bat willow stems.Frank Gill and Alfie Williams stand between fast-growing eight-year-old cricket bat willow stems. (Image: FJ)

Together with contractors, the direct works team has established the site as a nature reserve, creating pathways and planting oak, poplar, field maple and willow on higher ground, installed interpretation boards and built three bird hides. Natural regeneration has been allowed to occur and Konik ponies graze the habitat to promote biodiversity.

“The 48-ha reserve is not a forest in the traditional sense, rather a mosaic of habitats; scrub, trees and wetlands (balancing lakes) on a flood plain site. It always has some water in it, depending on the river levels. It is quite high at the moment.”

The success of the landscaping can perhaps be measured in terms of the wildlife seen.

According to the website, this includes damselflies, dragonflies and grass snakes. Birds found here include gadwall, shoveller, teal, wigeon, goosander, pintail, lapwing, redshank, egret, heron, cuckoo and several owl species. Frank says: “Birdwatchers flocked here following sightings of marsh warblers, one of the UK’s rarest breeding birds.”